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Nikki Haley breaks with Donald Trump: 'We need to acknowledge he let us down'

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President Donald Trump meets with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, in Washington. File/AP Photo/Evan Vucci/AP

COLUMBIA — Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador who has become a star in the Republican Party, said she does not expect to see one specific GOP challenger in her likely 2024 White House bid: former President Donald Trump.

"He’s not going to run for federal office again," Haley told Politico in a lengthy story posted Feb. 12. "I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture. I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far."

Haley, a Trump critic during his 2016 White House bid who joined his administration after he won the election, has walked a tightrope with the bombastic president.

She supported his policies at the United Nations, wrote a column defending him from an anonymous administration critic and stumped for him during his reelection campaign. Still, privately she chastised him for his reaction to the deadly Charlottesville protests in 2017 and now is condemning Trump's response to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots where five people died.

"We need to acknowledge he let us down," Haley told Politico. "He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again."

Reminded that most Republican voters still give Trump high approval marks even after the riot that led to his second impeachment, Haley noted how she told Republican National Committee leaders in a Jan. 7 speech that the president "was badly wrong with his words yesterday" and "his actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”

Asked why she did not speak out until after the riots, Haley said she did not think Trump was dangerous.

"I didn’t think that there was anything to fear about him," Haley said. "There was nothing to fear about him when I worked for him. I mean, he may have been brash. He may have been blunt. But he was someone who cared about the country."

Haley would add, "The person that I worked with is not the person that I have watched since the election.”

Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University, said Haley's latest comments offer another example of her yearslong efforts to try to please both wings of the Republican Party: the Trump-loving base and the more traditional conservative establishment as she prepares for a 2024 presidential campaign.

"The thing with walking the middle ground is sometimes it works and you get some of both sides, but sometimes it fails spectacularly and you get neither side," Vinson said.

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As an example, Vinson pointed to Kamala Harris' unsuccessful efforts in the 2020 Democratic primary to win over both progressive and moderate voters. The primary's winner, Joe Biden, went on to pick Harris to be his running mate.

Pressed at how could she not see the damage caused by years of Trump's exaggerations, lies and harsh rhetoric until the 2020 election, Haley said it was not a fault of her leadership.

“That’s not poor leadership," she said. "That’s sitting there looking at someone knowing the relationship that you had, knowing the good that he had, and watching someone fall apart, in awe, going, ‘How did this happen?’”

Haley said she turned off the television during Trump's Jan. 6 speech that led to his impeachment on the charge that it helped incite the Capitol riot. She said it triggered memories of the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist when she was governor.

"Somebody is going to hear that, and bad things will happen," Haley said of the Trump speech.

Still, Haley did not want to antagonize voters who supported Trump, saying the president did good things for the country and the Republican Party while in office.

She told Politico the GOP should not return to pre-Trump days and use "the good that he built, leave the bad that he did, and get back to a place where we can be a good, valuable, effective party."

The 16,000-word profile further elevates Haley, already one of the most well-known Republican contenders expected to seek the presidency in four years. That high profile comes with the advantage of an early head start, but Vinson noted it also means opponents and critics will have more time to scrutinize her record.

"Everybody's assumed she would be one of the top tier candidates, but the challenge you face then is you've got to live up to expectations and everybody's gunning for you," Vinson said.

However, Vinson added, memory in national politics is increasingly short. The fact that Haley was able to join Trump's administration mere months after savaging him on the campaign trail is evidence of that.

By the time Haley launches her 2024 campaign, voters may be more focused on what she's saying in the moment than what she said years earlier, Vinson said.

"People will have pretty much forgotten about it," Vinson said. "But if the party hasn't made up its mind to depart from Donald Trump, she's going to have to make a choice because I don't think you can go through an entire primary on the Republican side walking that tightrope."

Follow Andy Shain on Facebook (andyshain12) and Twitter (@andyshain)

Columbia/Myrtle Beach Managing Editor

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's newsrooms based in Columbia and Myrtle Beach. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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